"Those last four games really helped our team," Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "We almost had a series before the postseason started."
The Red Wings' reward isn't much of a prize.
The league's top-seeded team, the Chicago Blackhawks, will host Game 1 on Wednesday night to start a best-of-seven series in which they'll be heavily favored. During the regular season, Chicago beat Detroit in overtime once, twice in shootouts and added a 7-1 rout March 31 at Joe Louis Arena.
"They had our number the regular season," Zetterberg said. "It's a great team. They're stacked with forwards. They're stacked in the back line. And they have a good goalie. It's going to be a tough series for us, but it's going to be a fun one."
It's also might be the last time the two Original Six teams play each other in the postseason for a long time. After this year, the next time they would meet in the playoffs, it would be for the Stanley Cup.
The Western Conference rivals, who have split a dozen seven-game series, will be interconference foes next year because Detroit is headed to the Eastern Conference as part of the league's realignment.
The Red Wings might be able to play loose with nothing to lose because few outside of their dressing room will expect them to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2009. That year, Detroit eliminated Chicago in five games and was a win away from repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
Detroit is hoping to make another run this postseason, perhaps following the path the Los Angeles Kings did last year as the first team seeded eighth to win an NHL championship.
"In the league right now, any team can beat any team," Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey said. "We said from Day 1, we knew it would be tough to get into playoffs and we battled all the way to the end. We just said to try to get in and see what happens. We saw what LA did last year and hopefully we can keep going and give Chicago a run."
Detroit did outshoot the Blackhawks in three games, and had as many shots once. But the Red Wings couldn't score a clutch goal or make one more save in regulation, overtime or shootouts to win any of them. The Red Wings, though, have evolved into a different team than the last one Chicago saw April 12 in a 3-2 shootout win at the United Center.
Detroit didn't get free agent defenseman Ryan Suter or forward Zach Parise in the offseason as both signed with Minnesota. But Detroit's young defensemen, being forced to play a lot without Nicklas Lidstrom on the roster, have slowly matured and its inexperienced forwards have evolved into threats to score or set up teammates for goals.
Goaltender Jimmy Howard has validated the team's decision to sign him to a six-year contract extension last month by making 70 saves over the last two games against Anaheim. While Howard insisted the Red Wings believe they can play with anybody, he's also not striking a cocky tone about trying to match up with Chicago.
"We're going to have our hands full, let's be honest," he said. "They're a very deep team at every position."